The purpose of this report is to help practitioners, policy makers, and program developers create sound systems for school-to- work transition. Its approach to doing so is two-fold: (1) presenting an analysis of how school-to-work reform affects its clients and participants, and (2) describing a set of twelve "critical elements" that our research indicates are essential to any sound school-to-work system. These findings are based on lessons learned from a series of case studies conducted by the Academy for Educational Development (AED) in fourteen communities across the United States, part of a four-year national study of school-to-work transition reform, funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). As part of that study, we undertook to discover and describe exemplary instances of reform: cities, suburbs, and rural communities creating new systems with the common intent of changing how high schools educate in order to improve the prospects young people face after high school. We sought out variety: different models of change, different kinds of communities, different emphases in approach.
In the end we selected fourteen communities for case studies. For those who believe in school-to-work reform, their variety is exciting, for it confirms that ingenuity and commitment will create many paths towards the same broad purpose. We saw examples of career academies, statewide and regional systems, school-based enterprises and off-site work places, systems that emphasize career guidance and others that emphasize the integration of academic and vocational study.
One purpose of national studies of school reform is to explore what difference the reform has made, to students, but also to educational institutions and other partners in the reform. The AED/NIWL study discovered a wealth of positive outcomes for students, schools, businesses, colleges, and other community partners. We offer these in section III of this report, to affirm the practical benefits of the school-to-work strategy, but also to offer our readers evidence with which to advocate for the introduction of school-to-work reform.
Another purpose of studies such as this one is to identify best practices from which others may learn, through study and comparison of existing models. Yet those with whom we met often cautioned that to transfer any model wholesale from one community to another without major adjustments is a recipe for failure. As Richard De Lone (1990) observes in his study of model replication, this "cookie-cutter" approach to replication resembles franchising in the private sector, and features well-defined program models, detailed implementation plans, and specified components.
At the other end of the continuum, replication strategies allow for greater local adaptation, require less fidelity to the original model, and encourage more creativity in its reproduction. As the authors of the School-to-Work Act of 1994 understood, school-to-work reform, by definition, requires more flexible replication strategies. School-to-work is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Local circumstances--including but not limited to the labor market, business base, school infrastructure, and personalities--require flexibility of those who hope to create a school-to-work system in any locality. Implementing school-to-work reform requires that reformers study a range of options, consider what transition pieces already exist, weigh local resources and barriers, and assemble a new combination of vision and programmatic pieces that, one hopes, will eventually evolve into a system.
So rather than select one or more models to recommend as the best practice for school-to-work, this report identifies "critical elements" or "building blocks" that appear to be essential to any sound school-to-work system. Our hope is that doing so will help practitioners, "architects" of school-to-work at both local and state levels, assemble these building blocks into new or reformed systems that make sense for local circumstances.
The next section of this report explains the research methodology, including the selection of the fourteen communities and an explanation of cross-case analysis. The main body of the report follows, an analysis of critical elements that explains each element and offers several instances of its implementation. In analyzing the elements, we attempt to depict the breadth and complexity of each. In describing how several communities have implemented that element, we try to capture the creativity and comprehensiveness of their approaches. The report concludes with a discussion of the implications of our findings for future practice and research.